The southern border
The Russians are attending to their vulnerable southern border as well, and here, their calculations are as much about ensuring freedom of action for their own initiatives as for securing their flank. The geography is dictatorial: the Black Sea is the path to and from Syria (and the larger Mediterranean), and to hold the Black Sea, Russia must be able to secure the Caucasus. That means preventing Georgia from being turned against Russian purposes by an outside power. Russia is locally strong in the Caspian Sea, on the east side of the Caucasus; it is in the Black Sea and down the center-line, south through the Caucasus, where she needs strengthen her hand.
Reporting from December and January (see links at my earlier post above) indicated that Russia was moving troops into the Southern Military District. In late January, the Russian defense minister announced the deployment of additional special forces (Spetsnaz) troops to Stavropol and Kislovodsk, which lie in the Caucasus close to the border with Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see map).
The additional troops in the Southern Military District are unlikely to be used in Syria. Their new location is inconvenient for that; it would be easier to airlift them to Syria from better furnished logistics hubs. But the location is ideal for intervening quickly to take over Georgia, and thereby prevent the US from using Georgian territory, as well as establishing an uninterrupted line of military communication from Russia to Armenia, where the Russians already have a military outpost. Controlling the territory down to Armenia would put neighboring Azerbaijan – America’s other budding ally in the Caucasus – between Russian-held territory in the west and Russian forces in the Caspian Sea to the east.
This fight would involve “internal lines of communication” for Russia, and her preparations would not necessarily all be visible from outside the region. Air support, in particular, can be provided without visible pre-staging.
Meanwhile, Russia wants to hold the high card in the Black Sea to the extent possible, and to that end, has just – at the end of January – begun conducting strategic bomber patrols over the Black Sea.
The weather is immobilizing ships in the Black Sea at the moment, so naval manifestations from Russia are not to be expected. There has been a noteworthy change in the Med, however. The Admiral Kuznetsov carrier task force exited the Med at the beginning of February, and the Amur-class floating repair ship PM-56, which had been in Tartus, Syria, returned to homeport in the Black Sea on 31 January. But a Russian naval tanker, the Ivan Bubnov, remained in the Med when the carrier task force left.
Bubnov was north of Morocco heading east on 1 February; the tanker may well spend little time in Syria, because its presence gives the Russian navy a mobile refueling capability that is not dependent on Syria. Keeping Bubnov in the Med means the Russians intend to bring warships back as necessary, and be able to operate without a geographic tether. (For the time being, Bubnov can take on additional fuel in most Mediterranean ports. If tensions increased, the options could include Morocco, Algeria, Montenegro, and possibly Malta or Cyprus.)
Scope of the worst case?
It is inaccurate to underestimate or dismiss Russia. She is neither inert nor a non-factor in the Syria crisis – and she doesn’t need to be able to “defeat” the US or NATO in a confrontation, she just has to make the cost of a confrontation too high. I believe Russia is sending every signal she can think of to discourage the West from mounting a military operation. The Russians don’t want to have to fight. In Syria, that will mean breaking the already-fragile conventions holding the regional status quo together.
But they are warning in multiple ways that they will fight if they have to. If that actually happens, the calculation will be that the NATO nations will not choose to bring their superior force to bear, and break a military defense of Syria that is backed and shielded by Russia. Before counting Russia out, consider these questions.
1. Can Russia airlift a tailored, small- to medium-size force to Syria? Yes.
2. Can Russia overrun Georgia and force concessions on the use of Georgian territory? Yes.
3. Can Russia deliver large weapon systems to Syria by ship? Yes.
4. Can Russia hold all shipping at risk in the Black Sea? Yes.
5. Can Russia shut down NATO’s northern logistic pipeline into Afghanistan? Yes.
Russia has all these capabilities. The relevant questions of power and will would be these:
1. Would NATO actively prevent Russian warships, or cargo ships escorted by warships, from getting to Syria? NATO could, but the question is whether we would.